Michigan’s oldest Jewish cemetery

By Shifra Epstein (originally published August 2022)

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, I have been visiting festivals, shops, and events in Ann Arbor speaking with individuals about the war. This June, my interest in how the war in Ukraine impacts Ann Arborites led me to the Top of the Park, the popular Ann Arbor Summer Festival on Ingalls Mall between East Huron and Washington, smack in the middle of the University of Michigan, near the Rackham Graduate School.

On June 23, several Jewish organizations sponsored a Jewish meetup at the festival: the Jewish Community Center of Greater Ann Arbor, Jewish Family Service, Hebrew day School, and the Jewish Federation.

Around 6 p.m., wearing my small Ukraine flag on my shirt, while walking toward the Top of the Park, my partner, Miriam Greenberg, noticed a large plaque on the southwest corner of East Huron and Fletcher streets.

The plaque read: Michigan’s first Jewish Cemetery Site. The body of the plaque provides an entrance into the early Jewish residents of the city which were buried there.

It reads “At this site the first Jewish cemetery in Michigan was established in 1848–49. The Jews Society of Ann Arbor acquired burial rites to this land adjacent to what was then the public cemetery. Several years earlier immigrants (Jewish, not on the plaque) from Germany and Austria had organized the first Jewish community in the state. Their first religious services were held at the homes of the five Weil brothers in the vicinity of their tannery, J. Weil and Brothers. Members of the Jewish community participated in all aspects of the city life. Jacob Weil served Ann Arbor as alderman from 1859 to1861. By the 1880s this original Jewish community no longer existed (they moved to Detroit, not on the plaque). In 1900 the remains of those buried there were removed and were reinterred in Ann Arbor’s Forest Hill Cemetery.”

And the credit at the bottom of the plaque says “Sponsored by Beth Israel Congregation and the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan, 1983/5743.

I must confess. Although I have been living in Ann Arbor for a long time, I never came across the plaque before.

After viewing the plaque, Miriam and I continued approximately 300 feet to the Top of the Park. By 7 p.m., the place was crowded. However, there were very few members of the Jewish community still around. We missed the free drinks. Beside the flag on my shirt, there was no flag nor any reference to the war in Ukraine

While disappointed that Ukraine wasn’t part of the event, I felt good about my serendipitous discovery of the site of the first Jewish Cemetery in Michigan.

My discovery of the plaque raised my curiosity and led me to Helen Aminoff’s article on “The First Jews in Ann Arbor,” published in Michigan Jewish History (vol. 23, January 1983 pp. 3–14).

Aminoff, a long-time resident of Ann Arbor and a member of Beth Israel Congregation, is a notable historian of the early history of Jewish Ann Arbor.

According to Aminoff, the plaque designation all started during the fall of 1980 when a tombstone engraved in Hebrew script with the name of Reila Weil (d. 1858) was given by fraternity members to Rabbi Allan D. Kansky, then the rabbi of Beth Israel.

The fraternity members had found the tombstone while cleaning the residence.

The name Reila Weil, engraved on the tombstone, led Aminoff to the five Weil brothers and their extended family members and friends. It was Aminoff’s discovery that the Weils had arrived from Germany and Austria and began their lives in Ann Arbor as farmers and peddlers. The Weils traded furs and skins and finally opened a successful tannery business.

As engraved in the plaque, the first Jewish cemetery in Michigan was established in 1848–49 in the original graveyard of the Village of Ann Arbor. The Jewish Society of Ann Arbor acquired burial rites adjacent to what was then the public cemetery.

Hence, the first Jewish cemetery in Michigan was established close to where I found the plaque on my way to the Top of the Park.

The original graveyard of the Village of Ann Arbor was abandoned by order of the Mayor and Common Council in 1891. The adjacent Jewish Cemetery abided a bit longer. By the 1880s the original Ann Arbor Jewish community no longer existed, its families having relocated to both Detroit and to farms in outlying rural areas. In 1900 the remains were reburied in Forest Hill, and the area was renamed Felch Park, in honor of Alpheus Felch, a Michigan governor, a U.S. Senator, and a U-M professor of law.

While I work on this article, the war in the Ukraine is still going on strong. Hence, while reflecting on my serendipitous discovery of the marker of the oldest Jewish Cemetery in Michigan, I could not resist thinking of the destruction of Jewish cemeteries all over Ukraine. As a feminist and a humanist Jewish woman, I like to finish the article with a prayer to the God of my grandmothers Shifra and Channa Z”l for the end of the war in Ukraine.

I hope, when next year arrives, the war will be over, the different Jewish organizations of Ann Arbor will sponsor a special event on the Top of the Park, marking the end of the war and celebrating the long history of the Jewish community in Ann Arbor.

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